A while ago we had some discussion about a popular question among church members: why there are not more great LDS writers, more “Mormon Shakespeares.” Various ideas were suggested, among them that church callings take up too much time for a nascent Mormon Shakespeare to begin filling up her folios.
Let me articulate another reason, hinted at (but not explicitly discussed) in the earlier thread: Church members have an Iago Problem. We are generally incapable of creating believable truly evil characters. We just don’t have the skill set to breathe life into an Iago. And without Iago, there can be no Shakespeare.
For those unfamiliar with Othello, Iago was the traitorous villain whose scheming led to Othello’s killing of his own wife. Iago is generally agreed upon as one of the more evil people in great literature; there is really nothing redeeming about him.
It’s not just Iago, either. Shakespeare’s writings are peppered with great, evil characters, such as Lady MacBeth. The same goes for Milton, whose greatest achievement was breathing life (and what awesome life!) into Satan himself. The plots of their and other great works, meanwhile, often deal with murder, jealousy, pride, and lust.
To write an Iago or a Lady MacBeth requires that the author enter the mind of that character and see as they would see. It requires an intimate understanding of evil, and a capability to visualize life as it would be lived by that character. What is needed, to quote the Rolling Stones, is some sympathy for the devil.
A corollary to the Iago problem is the Hamlet problem — the hero should have weaknesses and major character flaws. And these should be real, and often unresolvable, and not the obvious and farcial “flaws overcome on the way to becoming a better person” that we might see in church literature.
Latter-Day Saints are strongly discouraged from having attitudes or ideas that would allow them to draw a good Iago or a good Hamlet. Doubt? The ability to think about things from an evil point of view? Those attributes are anathema to most members. In fact, there is just one character that most Latter-Day Saints could draw — a Captain Moroni. Captain Moroni may be a great part of the Book of Mormon, but there is a reason why great literature does not have many Moroni-esque figures. From a literary standpoint, they’re boring.
Not all LDS authors are incapable of writing evil characters. And those who are capable are not always received well. Orson Scott Card has crafted a few good evil characters — and you will hear church members disgustedly say “I can’t believe he wrote about that stuff!” Neil LaBute created some fun, unrighteous characters — and was censured for it. (One can only imagine what Shakespeare’s or Milton’s stake presidents would have said to them. “Bill, I can’t believe you’re writing this kind of stuff! Don’t any of your stories have good people and happy endings?”).
Such attitudes only reinforce the Iago problem. And they lend credence to the idea that, although church members say they want great LDS writers, what they really want are great LDS writers who have clear-cut good-guys and bad-guys, and where good always triumphs by the end of the book. We’re not looking for an LDS Shakespeare, it seems. We’re looking for an LDS Louis L’Amour.